April Fool’s Day

Argus title : Following in the path of ‘holy fools’

I grew up in Apartheid South Africa. My grandfather was a Justice of the Peace, so policemen often visited his house. They came in uniform and in plain clothes, White officers to the front door and Black officers to the back, usually to have warrants signed.

One day, when I was about 5 or 6, I was squatting on the linoleum floor of my grandparents’ kitchen, playing a game by the open back door. I heard a knock and, startled, looked up to see a very tall Black man standing in the doorway.

He wore neither the overalls of a servant nor the uniform of the African police, but was dressed in a suit and tie. He was the first Black plain-clothes policeman I’d ever seen.

He acted like a White man. He didn’t bow his head or hold his hands together or call me “Nkosasane”. He just said ”Could I see Mr Salmon please”. And smiled. I said “Yes. I’ll just go and call him”. As I turned away to go and fetch my grandfather, I heard he had stepped over the threshold as if to follow me. As a White man might have done.

I turned back and saw him quite close to me and was frightened. Like the little White supremacist I was, I drew myself up to my full small height and asked” Could you wait here please” – and then looked up at him. He stood still and so did I. For one moment I looked straight up into his eyes and he looked back at me, his eyes twinkling. Then he smiled, very gently. And he stepped back.

He smiled as if he could see right inside me and so knew how frightened I was. He wasn’t angry or hurt, just sympathetic and amused. I’d acted as if I was his superior and I had made a fool of myself.

Red-faced with shame and embarrassment, I called my grandfather, then fled to the sitting room and hid. Crouching silently between a sofa and the wall, with my arms around my legs and my knees pressed against my forehead, I waited for almost an hour, until I was sure the man had gone. For years afterwards I would not answer the door at my grandparents’ house, for fear I’d see the man again and he would laugh at me.

I have never felt so much exposed and ashamed as I did that day. And yet, I grew to be very grateful to the man. At that age I’d never heard of racism, though I lived with it every day. After that experience, though white supremacy continued to rule most aspects of my life, I knew that it was based upon a lie.

The tall policeman showed me we were equals in everything but age. And he taught me another valuable lesson – which is that making a fool of oneself can be no bad thing. That’s something worth consideration on this April Fools Day.

There are different kinds of folly. Most people make foolish mistakes, and learn from them. Some people are simple fools, knowing little, but living well. Others play the fool, holding up a mirror to the world and its people. Still others are foolish by virtue of wilful ignorance or arrogance.

But, there are some people of great virtue or wisdom who, in making the choices they do, run the risk of being mocked and called ‘foolish’. Such fools are unimpressed by status and worldly power. They’re incorruptible.

The English mystic and artist Cecil Collins described this kind of fool as “… innocent, spontaneous and joyful, even Christ-like. As a result he may be ridiculed by conventional society, although he actually has the insight which they have lost”.

St Francis of Assisi was one such holy fool. The writer GK Chesterton referred to him as “God’s tumbler”, while he himself referred to the religious order he founded – later called Franciscans – as “Fools of God”.

As a young man in the early 13th century, on a trip to St Peter’s tomb in Rome, St Francis gave away his money and exchanged clothes with a beggar. He attempted to give away some of his wealthy father’s property to benefit the church and, when his father condemned him, Francis stripped naked in the market place. He was mocked, beaten and imprisoned.

Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, was another rich and privileged young man who, in the 15th century, gave up everything to help the poor and oppressed. He too risked ridicule and violence. Rejecting the system of caste and sexual inequality of which he was a beneficiary, he began to bring poor people back to his home – where his mother would feed them. When his father gave him money, instructing him to buy food to sell at a profit, the young man infuriated him by giving it away to the poor.

There is a rich tradition of ‘fools’ in the Jewish tradition – of whom the Talmud says “Who shall bring redemption, but the jesters?” And the great mystic tradition of Islamic Sufism celebrated holy fools who travelled the ‘path of blame’, rejecting self righteousness and worldly honours. So too the ‘great souls’ of the Hindu tradition – such as Gandhi – gave up wealth to live in simplicity, willing to attract ridicule rather than live without virtue.

Norman Kember, the 74 year old peace activist, recently released from captivity in Iraq, is solidly within this tradition of holy fools. An outspoken critic of the invasion of Iraq, he is just one of a total of about a 100 activists from the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) who over the past few years have visited the country. They have chosen to live there without protection as an act of solidarity with Iraqis.

On his release he thanked the people who had worked to secure his freedom. However, in his remarks he rightly (though undiplomatically) gave greater prominence to the suffering of the Iraqi people – and the British soldiers who have died there – than to thanking the army.

Mr Kember’s comments drew the ire of General Sir Mike Jackson, who appeared anxious to present his release as a major military ‘rescue’. He lambasted his lack of gratitude. In fact the release, when it came, had the appearance of having been effected less by military action than by peaceful negotiation.

Norman Kember had already irritated the army by saying that if he was captured he did not want to be rescued in any way which risked loss of life. However, the belligerence of the army’s attack on him suggested something more – an active desire to disorientate and discredit him before he could make any public statements about the occupation.
It is not usual army practice to criticise hostages. It is not generally expected that they will be able to make coherent public statements, particularly in the immediate aftermath of release when they are shocked and traumatised. Yet in Mr Kember’s case he had barely been free for a day before the head of the British army – and the usual craven media attack dogs – began to condemn and ridicule him.

Military personnel, and some politicians, began to present his organisation as an irresponsible collection of naïve pacifists and he, in particular, as a foolish, vain old man who had put lives at risk.

Norman Kember has not only borne these insults with dignity he has also had the courage to publicly question his own actions. Speaking about his decision to go to Iraq, he asked himself “Was I foolhardy or rational?”

It’s an interesting question. Uncompromising, principled people like Norman Kember can be a trial to the people around them. However, his capture and release have had worldwide publicity and his actions have almost certainly strengthened public opposition to the occupation. They may also have brought some comfort to Muslims who fear an endless modern ‘crusade’ against them.

The fact that individuals of many different faiths – including more than one alleged or convicted terrorist – condemned his capture, will have given hope to many others.

Norman Kember has had the courage to risk being thought, or called, a fool – and the honesty to consider whether he has actually been one.

It would be truly wonderful if our Prime Minister could find the strength within himself to question whether he has been “foolhardy or rational” in making the decision to invade Iraq.

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